robotfluga_RoboBee

In the very early hours of the morning, in a Harvard robotics laboratory last summer, an insect took flight. Half the size of a paperclip, weighing less than a tenth of a gram, it leapt a few inches, hovered for a moment on fragile, flapping wings, and then sped along a preset route through the air.

Like a proud parent watching a child take its first steps, graduate student Pakpong Chirarattananon immediately captured a video of the fledgling and emailed it to his adviser and colleagues at 3 a.m.—subject line, “Flight of the RoboBee…”

The demonstration of the first controlled flight of an insect-sized robot is the culmination of more than a decade’s work, led by researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.

“This is what I have been trying to do for literally the last 12 years,” says Robert J. Wood…principal investigator of the…RoboBee project. “It’s really only because of this lab’s recent breakthroughs in manufacturing, materials, and design that we have even been able to try this. And it just worked, spectacularly well…”

“We had to develop solutions from scratch, for everything,” explains Wood. “We would get one component working, but when we moved onto the next, five new problems would arise. It was a moving target.”

Flight muscles, for instance, don’t come prepackaged for robots the size of a fingertip…

The robotic insects also take advantage of an ingenious pop-up manufacturing technique that was developed by Wood’s team in 2011. Sheets of various laser-cut materials are layered and sandwiched together into a thin, flat plate that folds up like a child’s pop-up book into the complete electromechanical structure.

The quick, step-by-step process replaces what used to be a painstaking manual art and allows Wood’s team to use more robust materials in new combinations, while improving the overall precision of each device.

We can now very rapidly build reliable prototypes, which allows us to be more aggressive in how we test them,” says Ma, adding that the team has gone through 20 prototypes in just the past six months.

I can think of two additional directions of development, whimsical and military. I’ll volunteer a suggestion for microtronic controls adapted for fly-fishing. No doubt the death and destruction crowd are already coming up with their own ideas.



  1. Curt says:

    Your country still has pennies?

    • Hmeyers says:

      The government takes our paychecks and gives us back some of those.

  2. MikeN says:

    No armed revolution though.

  3. bobbo, the pragmatic existential evangelical anti-theist says:

    This here link from the sidebar to yours says this came from studying bees. Makes me think a direction might be to replace nature when bee colony collapse becomes unworkable, search and rescue. Not yet, but first steps have been taken.

    http://youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&v=K6PpCTMEAVM&NR=1

    • Hmeyers says:

      Nature is near infinitely complex. Almost aggravatingly so. They are better off saving the bees.

      • bobbo, Jr Culture/psychiatric/ethnic/social/art critic and general bonvivant says:

        Right on. Every advance we make just reveals more awesomeness. I can’t wait until we know everything.

        • Hmeyers says:

          It’s so complex, it almost seems like intelligent design.

          Ok — no … just kidding!

          But back on track, nature is quite complex and we don’t have models or even simulations remotely approaching even insect level of intelligence.

          The 1950s sci-fi movies were a pipe dream. We can’t even do 2/3 of 2001 A Space Odyssey (no human has gone beyond the Moon in 40+ since 1969) and the idea of Mars colonization or even a lunar base at this point is fantasy.

          What we thought was decades away is more likely several decades away …

  4. TL says:

    a swarm of these things would be pretty scary.. the Matrix revolution anyone?

  5. Hmeyers says:

    This reminds me of Rand Paul doing a filibuster on drones.

    And then a few weeks later saying “Drones would be ok to stop someone from robbing a liquor store.”

    http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/04/23/ron_paul_fans_furious_over_rand_pauls_drone_flip_flop

    I don’t like or want drones.

    But I accept that they will happen for economic and convenience reasons. We have cameras all over at this point, why not more.

    • pedro says:

      Sure. Also inside houses. I’m waiting for the bathroom cams

      • spsffan says:

        Well, you could always flush them down the lu.

        But, you mustn’t do that. They breed in the sewers and before long you have flocks of evil smelling soiled drones flying out of people’s lavatories infringing their personal freedom.

        Now, what’s that penguin doing on the television set?

  6. MWD78 says:

    someday the obscure video game “Mister Mosquito” may become a mainstream reality TV show…

  7. Cleveland Guy says:

    I call B.S. What about the power source? How far can these things fly and transmit video? The problem will be powering the small drones.

    • Hmeyers says:

      They have to occasionally pollinate some flowers and stuff to recharge.

      Which really pisses off some of the other insects …

    • Gwad his own self says:

      You can see wires coming from the device that appears to be actually “flying”. That’s likely the requisite power source.

      This is just an advertisement looking for funding.

      I’ve been involved in radio controlled helicopters for 25 years or so. Trust me, these micro drones will be unusable outdoors 95% of the time due to wind. A sailboat requires a keel to go in any direction other than downwind. You can’t put a keel on an aircraft.

      • Gwad his own self says:

        I should add that they can probably be powered via microwave but that will have numerous issues and limit the device to line-of-site operation.

        • Pmitchell says:

          finally someone other than me sees the BS in this article. batteries are not included. More fake science BS like earth 2 showing up every 6 weeks weeks only to turn out to be 3x the mass of earth and hot enough to melt lead

  8. Taxed Enough Already Dude says:

    The “Bug Bomb” of LEXX fame is likely here already.

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=eLkcV-D8hi0

  9. bobbo, Jr Culture/psychiatric/ethnic/social/art critic and general bonvivant says:

    Hmeyers engagingly says:
    5/8/2013 at 8:52 am

    It’s so complex, it almost seems like intelligent design.

    Ok — no … just kidding! //// Yes, just kidding. The universe “looks like” just as it does. Nothing intelligent about it. Intelligent only if you ignore the 99.99% that doesn’t fit with that limitation of understanding. I almost commented that the new theories about what “nothing” or empty space is, is quite the mindbender. Over my head.

    But back on track, nature is quite complex and we don’t have models or even simulations remotely approaching even insect level of intelligence. /// Not true at all. We know how insect do most of what they do in “broad strokes.” I think the mystery is much more narrow than as you broadly state: how do they cram such navigation/responses into such a small neuron set and how is it transmitted by dna? THAT is a marvel. Navigating by sun, stars, magnetism, landmarks—not so much.

    The 1950s sci-fi movies were a pipe dream. We can’t even do 2/3 of 2001 A Space Odyssey (no human has gone beyond the Moon in 40+ since 1969) and the idea of Mars colonization or even a lunar base at this point is fantasy. //// Worse than fantasy==it ignores the basics physics involved in such endeavors.

    What we thought was decades away is more likely several decades away … /// More like Never. Humans will never set foot on Mars. Likely on the Moon, likely no Moon base. It all takes too mucy energy/money.

    Reality is like that.

  10. mojo says:

    I dub thee “SKEETER”

  11. Uncle Patso says:

    bobbo said, in part:

    “Likely on the Moon, likely no Moon base. It all takes too mucy energy/money.”

    I could see it if significant quantities of Helium-3 are found to be extractable. Fusion power could be ours at last!

    • bobbo, Jr Culture/psychiatric/ethnic/social/art critic and general bonvivant says:

      I don’t know the Helium-3 potential but…. I will stand on my ignornace and say what ever cheap anything is on the moon becomes too expensive to use on earth or thereafter.

      Are you thinking a power plant on the Moon with energy beamed back to earth? Like all other Nuclear Energy–conceptually possible…. but not practical if all cost elements are included.

      And I will add to the energy/money equation with “time” as well. Some hard limitations on what we can imagine.

  12. UncDon says:

    I’m waiting for RoboSperm, which will open up a whole new variety of porn for the coming decade.

  13. This seems more like a study of wing phenomenon. The tethering makes it otherwise uninteresting.

    • Sam says:

      Uninteresting until it learns to hop from recharging station to recharging station, just like Internet messages hop across the country.

      Think steampunk carrier pigeon.

    • Dallas says:

      See TED presentation on the study of the fruit fly wing design. in addition , its unusually fast response mechanism from detecting danger to taking flight . Fascinating .
      Fruit fly is one of the oldest, if not the oldest creature on earth.

  14. Glenn E. says:

    At all times, these things were tethered to a power source, by a hair thin wire. So it’s not like they’re some kind of micro-drone. Just a proof of concept prototype. Obviously too small to carry any sort of Tv camera. And while you might think it could never carry aloft any sort of weapon, either. Think again. A single drop of Ricin, could be delivered by one of these, to the unprotected scalp. Then, 24 hours later, you’re dead. And the Cone Shell snail’s toxin, can be just as deadly. If death isn’t desired, but say “character assassination”. A thin pin prick could deliver a tiny amount of LSD. And wa-la, a shopping mall shooter is made.